Big Brother is definitely watching you in the state of Texas, where the state National Guard last year installed stingray devices on two surveillance aircraft,

The Observer reports:

Dirt boxes mimic cellphone towers by tricking every smartphone within a geographic area of up to one-third of a mile to connect with the technology, usually without cellphone users or telecom companies ever knowing about it. Also known as cell-site simulators, the devices can be used from land or air and are capable of intercepting the user’s location, phone numbers dialed, text messages and photos as well as recording or listening to phone calls.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates have called the use of dirt boxes a “digital dragnet,” because it’s nearly impossible for the government to avoid intercepting personal information from innocent cell phone users when pursuing investigative targets.

According to the contract documents obtained by the Observer, the eavesdropping devices were installed in two RC-26 surveillance planes used for counternarcotics operations. At one time, the RC-26s reportedly operated under a front company called Air Cerberus, but have since converted to military registrations, which generally mask their flight routes and unique tail numbers.

The federal government funds most state and local stingray programs, and naturally that funding comes with strings attached The feds require those agencies to sign non-disclosure agreements, causing a problem for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys trying to obtain information about the use of stingrays in court.

It get’s worse; the feds actually instruct prosecutors to withdraw evidence if judges or legislators press for information. As the Baltimore Sun reported in April 2015, a Baltimore detective refused to answer questions on the stand during a trial, citing a federal non-disclosure agreement.

In Texas, the use of stingrays is even more troubling because it’s not being run by a civilian law enforcement agency, as the Observer explains (bold emphasis added)

Law enforcement’s use of the technology is usually considered legal when used against Americans with a warrant….But the Texas National Guard is a military force under the governor’s command, not law enforcement. It’s unclear under what legal authorities the State Guard would be operating to conduct electronic eavesdropping….The Texas National Guard refused to explain to the Observer what steps, if any, it takes to secure a warrant prior to deploying the devices, or where the dirt boxes are being used.

In fact, the vice chairman of the Texas House committee that oversees the National Guard didn’t even know the purchases had been made because the transactions were done in secret.

Private citizens are often told by pro-surveillance types if they’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve got nothing to hide. If that’s true, shouldn’t it apply to government as well?

The inevitable outcome is painfully obvious. If left in their hands, these stingray devices will most certainly be used by the Texas National Guard in an illegal and unconstitutional manner by stealing cell phone data from innocent Americans without a proper warrant.

Texans should contact their local representative immediately and politely, but firmly insist they sponsor a bill explicitly prohibiting the warrantless use of stingrays. It’s a step already taken by states such as Illinois. This will not only protect Texans from illegal spying by their state government, but it will also deprive the feds of an easy way to collect private information on U.S. citizens.

Find the model legislation here.

TJ Martinell

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